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Jackie Hoffman`s A Chanukah Charol

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jackie Hoffman
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If you've been among the precious few audience who have caught Patrick Stewart's one-man version of A Christmas Carol, you already have a lot to be thankful for. Sure, it's a brilliantly adapted and performed piece of theatre based on the second-best-known Christmas story, and it's a rare and precious occurrence (despite having taken it to Broadway four times, he's only given 60-some performances). But for the next two Sunday evenings at New World Stages you have access to another superb reason to appreciate Stewart's accomplishment: It's inspired actress-singer-comedienne Jackie Hoffman to create the funniest event of the holiday season.

It's titled Jackie Hoffman's A Chanukah Charol, and... Oh, you can guess, can't you? If you're familiar with Hoffman from her hilarious turns in Hairspray, Xanadu, or The Addams Family, or her scintillating solo concerts at Joe's Pub, you know that her bracing brand of angry humor is the cure for the severest cases of the doldrums. So letting her loose to filter Charles Dickens's classic story through her scowling Jewish lens and directly into your gut would seem, on the face of it, to be the best idea imaginable for making this endlessly told story new again.

And, of course, it is. Hoffman's tale begins with her forsaking her family's holiday invite so she can play one of her yearly "synagigs" at Temple Beth Shalom in Queens. When the audience is rowdy and unresponsive, she storms off the stage and into her dressing room (really the rabbi's office), where she's visited by the spirit of Molly Picon appearing on the label of a Manischewitz bottle. "I don't want to be a Jewish star," Hoffman cries out to the famed Yiddish headliner, "I want to be a real star!" That's all Picon needs to warn Jackie of the three ghosts who will visit her to help her plot her destiny.

With one a childhood friend and now a Broadway dancer (in Spider-Man, natch!), another a terrifying cloaked figure ("You're the one that doesn't talk, right? Good, one less character voice."), and the third Shelley Winters, Hoffman is primed to learn the true meaning of Chanukah. She traipses from the past when she perfected her style of insult comedy on the schoolyard, to the present with her constantly bickering family, to the future where she's a distant memory thanks to the violent reality TV series that made her the household name she always wanted to be.

Hoffman never strays far from Dickens's outline, but she doesn't need to—she can get more comic mileage out of one minuscule bit than any other theatrical laughmeisterin on the scene. Her relatives' musing on the nature of Coke Zero is one of the evening's true gut-busters (and a masterful explication on the maximum amount of time it's possible to sustain a single, non-varying joke), but Hoffman's encounter with the little Chasidic boy she wants to buy her the giant bottle of Ambien at the corner drug store is every bit as funny. And whether playing the nervous high-school boyfriend who was to become a wealthy doctor ("I would have been a rich housewife in a mansion in Teaneck, with five beautiful, successful children. Dodged that bullet"), the disabled Pinkberry deliver boy Tiny Kim, or anyone in between, the panorama of wonder she paints with herself at the center keeps you floating on a cloud of levity for a full, all-too-brief hour.

The direction by Michael Schiralli (who also co-wrote the script) is crisp and simple; staging is limited to a few steps this way and a few steps that way, costumes and lighting cues are practically nonexistent (only a "lighting technician," Kate Devine, is credited for the bare-bones plot). But everything you need and want is here, so tidily presented and aggressively performed, you never feel as though you're missing out on any extra element.

There's even a special guest star of a sort. He's the narrator, whose authoritative British accent, own spin on the timeless Dickens tale, and his name-making stint on Star Trek: The Next Generation have branded him as the only performer big enough to share the stage with a talent as big as the one at the center of the action here. Still, A Chanukah Charol is more proof—as if any were needed—that Hoffman can and will do it all. Could Stewart as a costar be far away? Until that day, Hoffman is expertly holding her own. The moral of her tale may be "God help us everyone," but her show is so good you can be forgiven for thinking He already has.

Jackie Hoffman`s A Chanukah Charol
Sunday - December 18 @ 7:30pm, Monday - January 2 @ 7:30pm
New World Stages / Stage 2, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: One hour 15 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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